Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Author, Mental Health Therapist, Researcher, Expert in Attachment Trauma

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Understanding the Problems of Parents and Children Through the Lens of Attachment

Parents Comforting Their SonThe Advantages of a Secure Attachment

 The research in the field of attachment opens up a whole new world for all of us in understanding the problems of parents and children.  Attachment is the emotional connection between any two people.  However, life’s first attachments are by far the most important, as they set a template for all later relationships.  Attachment between children and parents evolved naturally eons ago, as the children who developed a strong need to remain near their parents were the ones who were most likely to survive – both physically and psychologically.

Children who feel the most secure in their early relationships with their parents have tremendous advantages in life.  They tend to grow up feeling good about themselves and others.  They cope well with life’s ups and downs, and they have a strong capacity for empathy.  These children naturally form other healthy, close relationships as they go out into the world.  Children who have not developed a healthy, secure attachment with parents tend to grow up feeling more anxious and insecure, disconnected, and angry.

 Four Ingredients of Secure Attachment

There are four main ingredients to a secure attachment relationship.  The first is affectionate touch and eye contact.  Cradling an infant, cuddling a toddler, and hugging a teenager all increase the sense of connection, especially if loving contact takes place on a daily basis throughout the growing up years.

The second ingredient is emotional attunement.  Children feel close when they sense their parents care about their feelings.  When parents soothe the distressed infant, reassure the frustrated toddler, or comfort the worried preschooler they are strengthening the parent-child bond.

The third ingredient is shared pleasure.  Parents and children enjoy one another through shared play, games, jokes, and giggles.  Mutual enjoyment increases children’s feelings of connection with their parents.

Finally, children need an environment that is consistent, predictable, and safe in order to be vulnerable, open and trusting with their parents.  Without this kind of protective, dependable environment children develop emotional walls to keep their parents and others at a distance.

Obstacles to a Secure Attachment

All babies and children are biologically programmed to attach to their parents, but not all children develop quality attachments.  There are several situations that can interfere with a good attachment.  For example, children with a difficult temperament may be so highly active or so extreme in their emotions that their parents naturally have difficulty connecting with them either physically or emotionally.  Chronic pain or separations due to hospitalizations may interfere with feelings of comfort and enjoyment, preventing the development of healthy bonds.  Children who endured an abusive or chaotic early life and who are later placed with an adoptive family may have intense fear and hurt, and their emotional walls may be difficult to penetrate.

Parents who live in stressful circumstances may have difficulty creating secure attachments.  Out of necessity they may be so preoccupied with solving the problems of living and coping that they are unable to tune into their children’s feelings and needs.  Parents with addictions are unable to stay attuned to their children or provide a consistent, safe environment because they are preoccupied with the addictive substance or behavior, and the whole family may be on the addictions roller coaster together.

Finally parents who grew up without secure attachment relationships themselves often have difficulty providing the ingredients of a secure attachment relationship with their own children.  Parents who did not experience nurturing and closeness growing up may feel uncomfortable with closeness and may subsequently distance themselves from their youngsters.  Parents who were mistreated as children may have an excessive need to exert control over their children in order to avoid feeling vulnerable.  Parents who were mistreated may perceive normal child misbehaviors as attempts to mistreat or hurt them, leading to angry overreactions.  Parents who feel unlovable may fear their children don’t love them, so they may attempt to placate their children or give them things to get them to love them more.  Parents who were not securely attached in childhood may be disconnected from their feelings, or they may be emotionally overwhelmed.

There is Hope for Parents and Children

Most parents love their children and want to give them the best start in life possible.  By gaining a clear understanding of attachment and the obstacles they are facing, parents can overcome their difficulties and create stronger bonds with their children.  Parents who lacked quality bonds as children can learn to identify and overcome the effects of their own early experiences so that they may give their children a better emotional start to life than the one they had.

(Photo: Dollar Photo Club Purchase)

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